Apr 10

How to be more innovative

symphony

symphony by paul (dex), on Flickr

Innovation is generally held to be a “good thing”. Companies that are innovative or that produce innovative products are lauded with praise, awards, not to mention investment funding. Innovative individuals are highly sought after and richly rewarded.

So how can we be more innovative, in our personal and corporate lives?

  • Find new ideas

Most of the good ideas are already out there, you just need to find them. Some of them are protected & that’s fine, respect that. But may more aren’t, so use them.

An important concept here is that of being a “boundary spanner”, of having eclectic interests. Research has shown that in looking for innovative solutions, individuals that had weak ties to many different disciplines were more effective than those that were tightly bound to a single one.

  • Assimilate those ideas

No not the Borg, but you need to be able integrate any new information with what you already know. There’s no point reading the latest article in hyperbolic geometry, if you failed Maths 101. This is the foundation of constructivist learning models (but that’s for another post).

The important thing is to be able to relate the new knowledge you’ve acquired to that which you already know in some way. This may sound like a contradiction to being eclectic, but it’s not. Remember, you’re not looking to be a global expert in the new topic but you do need to understand enough to be able to address your challenge.

  • New solutions

After all, the name of the game is innovation, so we’re looking to adapt our newly assimilated knowledge to produce a new product or service. Many of the most innovative products in recent times haven’t been ground breaking in their fundamental technology, but they have combined and adapted technologies in highly innovative ways.

Think iPhone, Toyta Prius, Facebook, etc.

Remember, innovation is different to invention.

  • Show me the money

This doesn’t necessarily mean a Dickensian, Mr Burns kind of exploitation. But you need to translate your new solution into a business proposition, otherwise it’ll remain an idea.

Note: While the points above are in a list (because that’s the easiest way of presenting them in a blog) they are not sequential and linear. It’s also worth noting that most innovation is a team sport, so make sure that within your team you have people that can find new ideas, bring them within your group, use them to solve problems and then commercialise those solutions.

Further Reading

The above ideas are collectively understood as “Absorptive Capacity” and have been applied to individuals, teams, divisions, companies and whole regions. A good place to start is wikipedia (as always) and follow the trail from there. The key academic texts are the original article by Cohen & Levinthal (1990) & the expanded theory from Zahra & George (2002).

  • Cohen, Wesley M; Levinthal, Daniel A, (1990), “Absorptive capacity: A new perspective on learning and innovation”, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol 35, Issue 1, pg 128-152
  • Zahra, Shaker A; George, Gerard, (2002), “Absorptive Capacity: A Review,Reconceptualization,and Extention”, Academy of Management Review, Vol 27, Issue 2, pg 185-203

The comments about weak network ties come largely from Tushman (1977) and developed by Hansen (1999). The background Wikipedia article on interpersonal ties is here.

  • Morten, Hansen, (1999), “The Search-Transfer Problem: The Role of Weak Ties in Sharing Knowledge across Organization Subunits”, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol 44, Issue 1, pg 82-111
  • Tushman, Michael L, (1977), “Special Boundary Roles in the Innovation Process”, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol 22, Issue 4, pg 587-605

This is a different style of post to previous ones I’ve written. I’d be very grateful for comments on areas that need expanding / simplifying or just explained in a different way.  I hope to be writing more articles along similar lines as my current work with the iNETs is bringing all of this into sharp focus (if only from an academic research perspective).

Thanks

John

Oct 11

Social Media – Recommend something

Uploaded on March 17, 2009 by gilderic

Uploaded on March 17, 2009 by gilderic

Recommend: to present as worthy of confidence, acceptance, use, etc.; commend; mention favorably

This is possibly the hardest stage and the one that most often introduces cognitive dissonance. You spend the time establishing rapport, building your understanding, demonstrating your understanding and expertise, at some point you need to recommend a solution. Obviously you want to recommend your solution, your most expensive solution (to push your ROI), or your cheapest solution (to hook them in)?

No, you want to recommend the best solution for whoever you’re talking to.

Of course if all you do is recommend others you’ll quickly go out of business, unless that is your business paid for by someone else. And here we get to a really interesting business proposition that’s been around for some time but is potentially seeing a resurgence in the business of social media business.

Commission based sales and affiliate marketing (where the sales channel takes a cut of the final transaction value) are nothing new. However, this is still a traditional sales pitch, even Google ads will present you the ad that’s paid the most for the keyword you’ve typed in even if you would actually be better off with another (cheaper) solution.

‘Proper’ social media allows you to recommend other people and yet still maintain a link with the customer for the next time, and through the joy of networks to all their connections. So when they tweet what a great consultant/business/product you’ve got, all their connections find out.

There still isn’t a decent mechanism for measuring social value. Tara Hunt‘s Wuffie Factor is an attempt but I’m not aware of it being used much in practice. LinkedIn recommendations are a bit too back-slappy and mutually appreciative which sort of devalues them.

The hardest reports I filled out were the ones where I’d been talking to a company and suggested they get in touch with another University for their £’00k research project. Of course it goes down better if that solution is from the company employing you, but its remarkable how many successful introductions to new clients came from people I’d recommended go elsewhere.

Uploaded on July 9, 2009 by Reinante El Pintor de Fuego

Uploaded on July 9, 2009 by Reinante El Pintor de Fuego

Close: to arrange the final details of; to complete or settle

If the recommendation is accepted, and it usually was, then closing is just the fine tuning of the agreement, sorting out purchase / invoice details, price, delivery, etc.

A word of warning though, just because you’ve build up this great rapport with a client, don’t begin work without a signed contract. If there is to be an exchange of money then you need at least something that sets out in writing the proposed transaction.

Having invested all this time and effort in securing a sale, keep it going, but don’t assume anything. Don’t assume that now they’ve finally made a purchase they’ll go away and leave you in peace, making monthly subscription installments; or that now they’ve bought your stuff you can pester them about every upgrade and option on the list.

I would recommend consistency above all. If you’ve provided a very light touch information stream and simple options leading up to the sale, don’t suddenly start sending bi-weekly email newsletters. Likewise, if you’ve been chatting on twitter, sending notifiers through your Facebook fan page, and so forth, don’t suddenly ignore them to chase the next client/customer.

So five posts ago I asked what was social media good for? It can be good for business, it can be good for your business, but like any tool of business, you need to spend a bit of time thinking through your strategy and implementing it to find new customers and establish rapport, lurk-a-lot (and talk with them a lot) to understand them and their needs, demonstrate you’ve been listening and really understanding, and then make some recommendations on their best course of action, eventually closing a deal with a new customer.

And if I’ve managed to build up some rapport with you, you think I might understand your needs, and have demonstrated that I understand social media, I’d recommend you drop me an email and we’ll take it from there! :)

Oct 11

Social Media – Demonstrate your skillz

Uploaded on October 2, 2006 by J. Star

Uploaded on October 2, 2006 by J. Star

Demonstrate: to make evident or establish by arguments or reasoning; to describe, explain, or illustrate by examples, specimens, experiments

Now is the time to join the conversation. Relate to your audience, demonstrate that you understand their world and needs. Demonstrate that you are an authentic person not just a marketing drone. This is where a little bit of human comment alongside the professional is more acceptable than in traditional marketing / communications strategies.

How much will depend on you, your product/service/company and your audience. Try a bit out, see what the response is, if you haven’t quite understood the social norms, apologise and tighten up a bit.

It may be that your online shopping site is able to demonstrate that you understand my need by recommending other things I’d like. At the moment this is still more ‘miss’ than ‘hit’. And frankly my experience of Facebook’s targeted ads is pretty poor (but then perhaps I’m not sharing enough to allow them to understand my every whim).

Freeagent established an early rapport with me through a review of their products on a website (can’t remember which but it was around their launch date), they clearly understood the needs of small businesses in the UK and particularly recognised the need for LLP specific accounting support (we’re incorporated as an LLP). They continue to demonstrate that they understand my needs by staying out of my face and cranking out the updates.

By contrast Greenlight Search Engine Marketing blew it completely at this point. They’d begun well, establishing rapport with a polite email referencing this site and a specific post, and followed up with a couple of phone calls which was a nice touch. I should have realised that they didn’t understand me from the email and phone calls but decided to proceed anyway because of the great job that Vodafone had done with their ‘Live Guy‘ promotion and this was also for Vodafone.

Greenlight asked me to put some links to Vodafone’s store on my post, I thought this was kind of cool (it’s always nice when someone reads, or at least notices your stuff) and wanted to add a small post-script about Greenlight, SEO in web2.0 etc and then the links. Nope, they just wanted the links and to pay me £40. Against my better judgement, and after lots of thinking, I stuck the links on (with rel=”nofollow” tags) and emailed my invoice. A few weeks later, without settling their invoice, I got another email, from someone else in Greenlight, ‘updating’ the links (which I did in good faith). Several months later, still without settling their invoice, I’ve not heard anything further and have taken the links off.

Which brings me to an important aspect of social media (which applies to any business but is amplified with online). Do a great job and your happy customer might tell one or two people what a great job you did, upset them and you’ll have United Breaks Guitars (YouTube video)!

Assuming you’ve demonstrated that you understand your client/customer/community needs, it’s time to make a recommendation on what to do next.

Apr 23

Show me the Money – BSSP

Mariano Kamp, July 2008

Mariano Kamp, July 2008

In my earlier post, I revealed some analysis that I’d asked Nigel to undertake and my interpretation of that analysis. Here I offer some thoughts on what actions businesses might take away from this.

The first thing to note is that unless you’re a Bank or car company, Government support for you probably won’t change that dramatically.

For the genuine start up, life is still going to be pretty tough until you can show some revenue. The good news is that there is lots you can do yourself that doesn’t involve lots of cost. Start blogging about your service/industry, join the Twitter conversation, keep an eye on the enterprise networks around you, get out there and meet people. The tools to support good old fashioned networking and business development have never been better or cheaper (and you can’t get cheaper than free).

If there isn’t a suitable enterprise network around you, start one. BEN is a great network around Bristol but tends towards established companies, so I set up an OpenCoffee Club, OpenCoffee is a ready made template that’s free and globally recognised. So long as you’re building an entrepreneur support & growth network and not just pimping your product/service you’ll find folks are generally happy to support you.

For the company that has some revenue, or the promise of imminent revenue there are a couple of interesting options.

The first is the range of grants available for R&D from SWRDA (South West Regional Development Agency). These are to part-fund small and close to market R&D (typically £5k to £50k) with a specific focus on small companies. You identify a project value and SWRDA provides a portion of that, usually between 40% and 60%.

  1. Proof of Market Projects test the commercial potential of an innovative idea for a new technology, lasting no more than 9 months. The output should be a thorough and professional analysis of the scale of the market opportunity. Grants of £5,000 – £20,000 are available to small and medium sized businesses.
  2. Micro Projects are small scale development projects lasting no longer than 12 months. The output should be a simple prototype of a novel or innovative product or process. Aid of £5,000 – £20,000 for all micro businesses covering 45% of eligible costs is available.
  3. Research Projects involve planned research or critical investigation into the feasibility of new products or processes, lasting between 6 and 18 months. The result of the project could be new scientific or technical knowledge that may be commercially exploited. Grants of £20,000 – £100,000 for micro and small businesses covering 60% of eligible costs are available.

There are also Development grants and two Exceptional grant levels >£100k. The development grants are only 35% and the exceptional grants aren’t really aimed at the small business or start-up entrepreneur.

Next up are more general business expansion funding. A couple of days ago SWRDA announced their South West Loans Fund. This is £10m of funding for small businesses that have been refused credit elsewhere. A good slug of that cash comes from Europe (£6.25m) so the focus is on the more deprived parts of the South West (Cornwall & the Isles of Scilly get £5m), but businesses from across the South West are eligible.

All grant applications have to address two very different needs. Yours and the funders. Having written plenty of successful business grants for funding, research or collaboration myself, knowing how to frame your business innovation so that it appeals to public sector funding is more art than science.

Although most of the cash is coming from SWRDA, BSSP means you access it through Business Link who will provide you with Information, Diagnose your needs, and Broker connections to the right bits of SWRDA’s Innovation team.

As I’ve said elsewhere, there is evidence that banks are beginning to open up to good companies under the Enterprise Finance Guarantee. For business growth finance this is probably your best bet, and you’ll have to have tried (and failed) here before you approach SWRDA for a South West Loans Fund application.

Then there are the equity funding options from SWAIN, Catalyst Venture Partners, Eden Ventures, and those are just the main ones in the South West. There are other independent Angel investors and networks in London that are investing.

So as ever, there are quite a few options. I’ve only cover some here, those I feel are most relevant to the small business or start up entrepreneur. The full list of support products is available in a pdf from SWRDA.

Aug 04

Ideas, Innovation, Action


Uploaded on July 2, 2007 by pictoscribe

I was just thinking I needed some inspiration to write a post and Rob Sheffield emailed to point me at WhyNot? an ideas exchange from Profs Ayres & Nalebuff of Yale. Rob and I had been chatting recently about creativity, entrepreneurship and intersections between ideas. I’ve not seen this site, though it seems similar to global:ideas:bank and a couple others.

The concept is simple enough that you apply the wisdom of the crowds to identify the best ideas. People are free to post their idea, everyone votes on them and the best float to the surface. WhyNot? seems to be suffering from lack of participants, the top rated ideas are all from 2003 vintage and have just over 100 votes each (except for the top idea that has 337 votes). With over 3,500 ideas and 5 years you’d expect a bit more activity. WhyNot? uses a very simple vote count to determine the best ideas (Support, Neutral, Oppose).

The global:ideas:bank has a few more ideas (just over 6,000) and a different rating system based on % for Feasibility, Originality & Humour. The drawback here is that a small number of high rating gets you to the top. There doesn’t appear to be any weighting for a balanced opinion.

Of course Digg has been surfing the wisdom of the crowds for some time. Google also uses a variation on this to track site traffic and links and back-links to work out which are the best sites (or solutions) to your problem (or search query). There’s a whole industry in getting your product announcement to the top of Digg and your site to the top of Google (I just did a search for Angel Networks and Oprah has the top two spots on Google).

Digg and Google are successful (in small part at least) because there is an instant path to action. You find something at the top of the list that addresses your need and you click the link to go to the site. Alternatively, if you have a problem looking for a solution (or a site looking for ad traffic) then Digg and Google also work quite well for you. The challenge with many of the other idea exchange formats is that there’s no champion or pathway to change. So you vote an idea as being great, so what, does anything happen?

That’s the great benefit of purposeful network events like BEN, OpenCoffee (disclosure: I run OpenCoffee Bristol) and SeedCamp. They’re great melting pots for ideas because they go out of their way to bring diverse groups together. They also do this with a clear objective in mind; learn something new that will make you and your business more enterprising, find people in your city/region to help grow your business, hook up with investors and springboard your start-up.

They also give people the time and space to figure out who they can work with before disclosing the golden nugget idea. They also have the wider network to help bring the idea to some degree of realisation.

So how do you get your ideas to become reality? If it’s your idea, how do you find your partners and collaborators? If you’re into making things happen, how do you find cool ideas to work on?